There's been some impressive food action at 92 Smith Street in Collingwood over the past seven years. Austere, suffer-no-fools wine bar Boire. The first incarnation of Victor Liong's modern Chinese diner, Lee Ho Fook. Two of the country's best hospitality professionals, Liz Carey and Paul Guiney, running a wine-focused pop-up called Semi-Permanent.
The real estate has form.
The latest to grab the baton is Ides, the permanent version of a previously roving monthly pop-up by Attica's then sous-chef Peter Gunn.
Some might question the wisdom of opening an ambitious fixed-price, multicourse restaurant in an area becoming better known for designer burgers and kebabs. But it's not altogether surprising that 92 Smith's leaseholders, David Mackintosh and Peter Bartholomew (the serial restaurateurs behind Lee Ho Fook, Rosa's Canteen, Pei Modern, et al), have taken a punt on Gunn.
Seats at the Ides pop-up last year were, for Melbourne food geeks, as rare and covetable as tickets to the recent Prince shows. Increasingly flustered commentary about Ides' severely oversubscribed waiting list and Gunn's Attica connection was fanned further when he took out the Pacific heat of the 2015 S.Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year award.
But with the pop-up's demand driven in large part by scarcity and Gunn's shoot-from-the-hip reputation how would Ides translate to staying in one spot with multiple services per week after the anything-goes flexibility of one a month? The first inkling that the answer might be "pretty bloody well, actually" arrives early. Not bread-and-butter early, though. The Ides bread and butter won't ease the nerves of skittish diners. The bread is good, a sesame sourdough made exclusively for the restaurant by Yarraville's Cobb Lane. The butter, house-made, is blended with an organic peanut paste and a lot of salt. It's enjoyable in a childlike, guilty pleasure, nose-thumbing kind of way, with the salt aggressively priming the saliva glands, but it's also the sort of flourish that can bring a low-level sense of dread that this might be the broad-brush default setting for the next six courses.
Course number one brings more promise. It's a pretty dish of fruit, cheese and honey with ripe-to-bursting figs split, pickled in a honey and vinegar syrup and teamed with Woodside goat's curd (hung for a few hours so it sheds whey, it's more crumbly than creamy), smoked herring roe, toasted hazelnuts and sorrel. It's an intriguing combination, particularly when the strong mandarin oil unbalances the pile a little, but with soft and crunchy textures sparring behind the exciting sweet-salt-sour play of flavours, it's a dish that gets better the more you eat, one that inspires interest and confidence.
The confidence proves to be well founded with the arrival of the next course. If you choose to look at a menu (it's unsubtly hinted that you'll spoil some, if not all, of the fun if you choose to do so), it reads: octopus, chickpeas, carrot. What you get is a bowl containing octopus tentacles that have been simmered in citrus-flavoured water, then cut into delicate discs, and halved chickpeas, both dressed with finely sliced samphire, black pepper and olive oil. The carrot part arrives in the form of a clear broth poured into the bowl at the table by one of the chefs who announce and serve every dish. The broth is made from char-grilled and raw carrots, seasoned simply with salt and white pepper, and simmered for hours before being strained to sparkling clarity. It's both clean and robust, and mingles beautifully with the octopus and chickpeas. Original but comforting.
There's no guarantee this dish - or any dish, for that matter - will be available when you eat at Ides, though there might be a version of it. Perhaps the charred carrot broth will douse radishes, avocado oil and peppercorns, or there might be a take that substitutes pork belly for the octopus. Gunn is a chef that likes to keep things fluid so, apart from an ungrumbling openness to accommodating dietary requirements, there are no givens, no signature dishes to act as navigational aids. You've just got to take the plunge.
Heidi Farrn raclette cheese sandwich
The room certainly makes trust easier. It has an emphatically stylish upholstered solidity to it now that makes the clattery sparseness of all the former incarnations of the site hard to remember. It speaks of a fluent, serious restaurant, though with a carefully modulated '90s hip-hop soundtrack that assures there's nothing strait-laced about it.
The floor is covered in charcoal-grey carpet, there's grey felt on the walls, and more felt on the front window, laser-cut to let in dappled light from the street. It's a dark, atmospheric, masculine space, designed by Grant Cheyne, the architect responsible for the dark, atmospheric, masculine look of Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurants. Tables and banquettes are upholstered in brown leather, there are small copper lamps and the ceiling is crowded with sound baffling.
One of the best parts of the new design is the central bar that's been lowered down one end to become a pass where the chefs plate up several of the dishes in full view. It's a clever design, practically relieving some of the crush in the small kitchen out the back while adding theatrical flourish to the monochrome dining space. It's been dubbed the "superpass" by Gunn and his staff.
The presence of sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo in the house inspires further confidence. He was named Gourmet Traveller Sommelier of the Year in 2015 for his work at Kappo, and he's wonderfully agile, dexterous and inventive with food-and-drink pairings. A real strength for a restaurant like Ides. His list leans heavily towards minimal-intervention, biodynamic labels from the New and Old Worlds, but given Mastrovincenzo's predilection for mixing it up there's a good chance you'll get beer or spirit or a sake instead of - or as well as - wine.
Take his match with a superb baby snapper dish, for example. The dish is thrilling in its clarity of flavour. A gorgeous piece of fish simply brushed with lemon juice and oil, and seasoned with salt is baked and then sprinkled with tiny toasted onion seeds. It comes with an amazing tomato "relish" made with grated tomatoes, palm sugar and sweet chardonnay vinegar that's pure romance with the fish. It's a dish that's very happy on its own, but then the (double) match lands: an Applewood Distillery Økar (a local version of Campari) and tonic, and a 2015 chenin blanc, a crisp but substantial number from the Great Southern region of Western Australia. The bitterness of the Økar works a treat with the sweet-sour beat of the tomato relish, while the wild-fermented chenin adds a layer of citrus clarity to the dish.
There's a similar pinpoint-matching accuracy with a ridiculously enjoyable cheese course, which is basically a fancied-up toasted cheese sandwich. It starts with house-made bread fried in butter, which is topped with Heidi Farm raclette that's mixed with anise oil, then compressed in a bag and thrown in boiling water until it's soft and warmed through. The cheese is topped with pomegranate seeds and mandolin-cut rhubarb that's been flash-cooked in the oven with coconut oil. Next comes a dressing of hibiscus vinegar and chilli oil.
And to drink with this quite remarkable melding of sharp, acidic, slightly hot, richly salty conglomeration? A saison from Brooklyn brewery Evil Twin called Ryan and the Beaster Bunny. It's light, spicy, smooth and well up to the job of negotiating a big-flavoured designer cheese sandwich.
Gunn's food is not all about complicated pile-ups of ingredients. Part of what makes this tasting menu easier to handle than many is not just that he limits it to six well-proportioned courses, but that there's light and shade - quiet moments that balance those of close-to-stupid indulgent noise.
A lamb rump, for example, offers simple pleasure: saltbush meat from Three Rivers in New South Wales, roasted and brushed with a caramelised apple balsamic just before being sliced and served with a mustard and lamb sauce. It comes with an excellent slaw of shaved baby Brussels sprouts, simply dressed with Dijon and lemon juice.
A similar sense of restraint is applied to desserts, perhaps a "strawberry pie" - a sweet combination of a basil bavarois, a chunky strawberry "pie filling", malt sablé biscuits and toasted fennel seeds - or a celery friand soaked in maple syrup and served with apple ice-cream and pistachios. They're not so much austere as concise.
Ides is operating with an impressive level of calm confidence for one so soon out of the blocks. It's like it dropped fully formed. Gunn's experience working for the likes of Ben Shewry and Dan Hunter play a part. Then there's the advantage of multiple dress rehearsals via the pop-up. Hell, maybe the space just has good feng shui. Whatever the reason, Ides is not just maintaining the legacy of its predecessors at 92 Smith Street, it's taking it to another level.